The failed promise of Ari Shavit’s ‘My Promised Land’

The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit is the talk of the town. Widely known in Israel as an influential and well-connected columnist for Haaretz, Shavit has not been a household name in this country.
February 18, 2014

The Israeli journalist Ari Shavit is the talk of the town.  Widely known in Israel as an influential and well-connected columnist for Haaretz, Shavit has not been a household name in this country.  Until recently, that is.  He has newly conquered America, earning glowing praise for his new book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.”  Recently, Shavit made it to Los Angeles, where he spoke to a capacity crowd at Schoenberg Hall on the UCLA campus and then answered questions from Jewish Journal editor Rob Eshman.

Many have lauded Shavit as the voice of the true Israel—a country that, as he describes it, has flaws but also possesses wondrous human resources and a remarkable record in facing down and overcoming adversity.  Shavit seems to relish the goal of disseminating this message.  In his media appearances, including his talk at UCLA, he often sounded like a representative of the Israeli hasbara project, not only expressing great pride in his country, but actively seeking to recruit prospects to the cause of mounting a rigorous defense of Israel.  This involved the familiar, but not altogether convincing, move of comparing Israel’s predicament to instances the world over—for example, by comparing the Israeli flag to the Union Jack, or Israel’s treatment of its Arab population to Canada’s and Australia’s treatment of their indigenous populations.   (Somewhat at odds with this recruiting aim, Shavit offers up in the book a latter-day version of the old Zionist doctrine of “negation of the Diaspora” with a series of overstated comparisons between the moribund state of Jewish life outside of Israel and the vibrancy of Jewish life within it.)

To be sure, Shavit is more than a front man for the “Israel advocacy” movement.  He is a fine writer with probing, quirky and frequently brilliant powers of observation.  A number of chapters in “My Promised Land” shed important light on Israeli society, including those devoted to the settler movement, the world of Mizrahi religious politics, left-wing academics in Jerusalem and perhaps most memorably, the Tel Aviv music club scene (“Sex, Drugs, and the Israeli Condition”).

One chapter has garnered more attention than others.  It is the one serialized in the New Yorker in October 2013, on the expulsion by the nascent Israeli army of the Arab residents of the city of Lydda in July 1948.  How one reads this chapter is a Rorschach test of one’s Israel politics.  Eshman began his interview of Schoenberg Hall by asking Shavit if this chapter, in its unvarnished depiction of Jewish cruelty and even murder, lent succor to Israel’s enemies, as some maintain.   Meanwhile, many other readers have heralded Shavit’s exposé in this chapter as a bold and courageous confrontation with an unsavory past. 

I see it as neither, and in fact regard this chapter as the triumph of Zionist amorality.  How could that be?  Doesn’t Shavit acknowledge that Lydda was “our black box” containing “the dark secret of Zionism”—namely, that Zionism’s success depended on the elimination of Arab Lydda as a demographic and military threat?  Doesn’t he expose the unrestrained vengeance of Jewish soldiers toward Arab civilians in Lydda, leading at times to massacres?  Unquestionably, he does. 

But this is hardly an original claim.  Two decades of rigorous scholarship, from Israeli researchers of differing political bents, have demonstrated that tens of thousands of Arabs from Lydda (most estimates range from 50,000 to 70,000) were forcibly evicted from their city on July 12.  The commanding officer of the Israel Defense Force’s Harel Brigade who issued the expulsion order was none other than Yitzhak Rabin, who recalled that he received the directive to “expel them” from David Ben-Gurion himself.  This is hardly the invention of enemies of Israel, but is drawn from a passage from Rabin’s memoirs that was censored by Israeli authorities.

Shavit offers new insight into the motivations of Israeli soldiers and officers involved in the Lydda action through a series of interviews he conducted with them.  But, more importantly, he symbolizes the shift in the way Israelis tell the story of the Palestinian refugees.  After decades in which Israeli and Diaspora Jews were raised on the belief that the refugees left of their own volition, Shavit models a different narrative tack:  No more denial of the fact of Israeli expulsion.  The new claim is that there was no choice.  The nascent state was in a war of survival and, unfortunately, bad things happen in war.  “Either reject Zionism because of Lydda,” Shavit proposes, “or accept Zionism along with Lydda.”

Shavit here follows in the footsteps of the leading Israeli historian of the Palestinian refugees, Benny Morris, whom he interviewed in Haaretz in January 2004.  After discussing the expulsion of thousands of Arabs undertaken by Israeli troops, Morris famously declared in the interview that, “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” 

Shavit fully adopts Morris’ view that the ends justify the means.  From the Israeli Jewish perspective, this is understandable.  1948 was a war of survival for the Zionist movement.  But that perspective will carry little weight with expelled Palestinians, for whom 1948 was a war of survival that they lost.  Why should that matter?  Well, Shavit himself lamented at various points in his UCLA appearance that neither side in the Israel-Palestine conflict ever deigns to see or understand the other.

Shavit, for his part, doesn’t take us very far.  He proposes the following logic: we came, we expelled, and we acknowledge it.  Now “get over it,” he tells the Palestinian side, quite literally.  In his view, acknowledgment of the Lydda expulsion is itself an act of great virtue.  It need not substitute for an apology for Lydda—nor less for an agreement to participate in financial compensation consistent with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (dealing with the Palestinian refugees).  This is where the amorality enters.  Shavit remains within his own self-contained and self-congratulatory world.  He remains opaque to the experience of the Other—the victims and losers of 1948–whom he otherwise enjoins us to see.  How does this advance the ball?  Should we not expect him to push us beyond our—and his own–comfort zone?

Let it be clear that issuing an apology for the physical dispossession of Arabs in 1948 is not equivalent to accepting the Palestinian right to return.  It is to acknowledge that the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of Palestinian displacement, is a deep and searing wound in the Palestinian psyche.  Unless and until Israel recognizes it (and then, together with other responsible parties, puts real effort and money into a refugee settlement plan), there is little chance of healing the wound and thereby lending to the Palestinians a measure of dignity that would allow them to overcome their own profound inhibitions and insecurities. To be sure, there is no guarantee that an expression of contrition will prompt Palestinians to turn around and accept Israel’s existence, or, even less, its desire to be defined as a Jewish state (as Shavit insists on).  But it is the right thing to do.  And without such contrition, the wound of Palestinian dispossession will continue to fester, preventing serious movement toward reconciliation and increasing the chances of ongoing conflict.  Someone has to take the first step toward understanding the Other.  Why not Israel, the far more powerful and stable party to the conflict?

Ari Shavit, with all his powers of observation and political savoir-faire, should be able to see this.  He could have done what authors of great literature often do—propel us toward an understanding of a world unfamiliar to us.  But he doesn’t.  The result is a book that succeeds at many levels of description, but ultimately fails to transcend the paradoxical insecurity of the triumphant Israeli. 

David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is the author of “Between Jew and Arab: The Lost Voice of Simon Rawidowicz.”

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